The Most Valuable Player is the oldest and most prominent award in professional sports. Cities have waged newspaper wars over it, a betting scandal has emerged from it and wounds have remained open for decades because of it. The MVP has value, both monetary—catcher Gary Carter of the Mets will get a $300,000 bonus if he wins it this year—and spiritual. Don Baylor, the American League winner for 1979, says, "Wherever I go, I'll always be an MVP."
But no one really knows precisely what being the Most Valuable Player really means. "The MVP isn't some publicity contest winner, like the Heisman Trophy winner," says 1973 AL MVP Reggie Jackson. "It isn't the best player, either. I guess it would be the player who did the most to help his team win." But what does "win" mean? Tigers manager Sparky Anderson thinks it means that the MVP should come from a first-place team, period. The 1980 AL MVP, George Brett, claims, "The Most Valuable Player should be in a pennant race; then you look at that team. If you took him out of the lineup or took him off the team, would they be in the pennant race?"
Brett also believes the MVP should not be a pitcher. Others mention "impact" and "leadership" as qualifications, while some, like 1978 AL MVP Jim Rice, care little about intangibles. "The player with the best stats should win," says Rice.
This seems a good time to examine the award, because as of Labor Day there were no clear-cut choices in either league. And this year's crop of candidates will pose some thorny questions. Should a starting pitcher (Boston's Roger Clemens) be considered? Should a player with clearly superior numbers (Minnesota's Kirby Puckett) win it, even though his team went nowhere? Can voters be fair to an unpopular personality (Toronto's George Bell)? When statistics are comparable, how much weight should be given to team performance (Houston's Glenn Davis) versus individual performance (Cincinnati's Dave Parker, Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt)? The Mets are far and away the best team; shouldn't they lay claim to the NL MVP (Carter, Keith Hernandez, Wanny Backstra)?
The ancestor of the MVP was the Chalmers Award, started in 1911 by the Detroit-based Chalmers Motor Co., principally as a vehicle to honor Ty Cobb, who won it that first season. It should be noted that the automobile given was Chalmers's cheapest model, and the award folded after four seasons. For awhile there were League Awards, voted on by a panel of writers; the AL had them from 1922 to '28 and the NL from '24 to '29. Each winner received a bag of gold pieces worth $1,000, but financially strapped teams refused to chip in and the awards went the way of the League of Nations. Finally, for the 1931 season, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asked the Baseball Writers Association of America to select MVPs, and the balloting has been in BBWAA hands ever since.
The voting is done by two members of the association from each city in each league, and they rank 10 candidates in order. BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack Lang of the New York Daily News selects the voters according to experience and regular beat coverage, and tabulates the ballots, which must be mailed before the playoffs. Because word used to leak out (in 1949 a betting scandal arose when Ted Williams upset Phil Rizzuto and Joe Page of the Yankees), Lang now waits until the day in November each award is to be announced before he does the counting. "No one's ever defined the award," says Lang. But when he mails out ballots in September, Lang includes the guidelines set down in 1938:
1) Actual value of player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2) Number of games played.
3) General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
Because a Cleveland writer said in the late 1950s that he could not vote for a pitcher, there is an amendment that reads, "All players are eligible, including pitchers, both starters and relievers."